Mandate for What?

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I want to throw this open for reader discussion, but up front let me say that talk of political mandates is one of those DC parlor games that often doesn’t mean very much. We’ll probably be referring to the 1990s as the Bill Clinton era for a long time, even though he never won a majority of the popular vote. George W. Bush showed that you can aggressively, and for a time successfully, seize the reins of power even if you barely ascended to the presidency.

But it’s been a generation since Reagan’s 1984 landslide, and I think there’s a tendency to forget the impact, real and imagined, of a sweeping victory of the kind Obama appears poised to win. (It’s worth noting too that in 1984, while we’d just come through a recession and the Cold War was still hot, there was nothing like the unsettledness that the financial crisis and overseas military engagements are causing now.)

You’re already seeing signs of the impact of the expectation of an Obama win. McCain is going all out to try to win this thing, but let’s be honest, his party is not. You don’t have to look too closely to see GOP officeholders running for cover, and not just from Bush, McCain, and Palin — but from specific policies and tactics, too. As the political tsunami approaches the beach, it’s every one for himself.

But all that being said, what will an Obama landslide translate into in the first year he’s in office? It’s not clear to me. One of the most toxic effects of the decline of the two parties as political institutions and the rise of the modern TV-based political campaign, with its cult of personality politics, is that the election becomes a referendum on the candidates themselves, rather than on broad policies or platforms.

The peril of the modern political campaign is not its nastiness (come on, we’re all adults). It’s that it supplants a real debate, so that by the time the election actually happens and a victor is declared, it’s not entirely clear what we all collectively just decided. Did we just vote for universal health care, or against that cranky old man and his dimwitted running mate?

So given the terms of the debate this campaign season, the issues facing the country, and the mood of the electorate, and assuming we see an Obama landslide next Tuesday, what does Obama have a mandate for? Thoughts?

Late Update: We’ve set up an open thread at TPMCafe to continue the discussion.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.
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